Catnip, or catmint as it is sometimes referred to, has been around forever. Cat owners are aware of catnip because of the effect it has on their feline friends, but the catnip plant has a long and varied history throughout the ages.
Nepeta catataria is a member of the mint family (hence the name ‘catmint’). It’s a perennial plant native to Europe, Africa and Asia, but in recent times, thanks to its popularity amongst humans and felines, catnip has been exported all over the world and now grows pretty much everywhere. We no longer have to go looking outdoors for catnip. Instead, we can buy it fresh or dried, as seeds and seedlings, for indoor or outdoor cultivation. So where does catnip originate from?
Catnip through the Ages
Mentions of catnip throughout history are common. Nepeta catataria is thought to have taken its name from the Etrurian city of Neptic (today the town Nepi in the province of Viterbo). Although there is no documented evidence per se, given the Egyptians love of cats, it is highly likely that they were amongst the first people to give catnip to felines. The Romans also regarded catnip very highly and used it in their recipes and herbal medicines. In Medieval times, catnip was used for all manner of things. In the Middle Ages, Nepeta catataria was known as catmint or ‘nep’. People and cats alike loved it and catnip was used in herbal medicines and for cooking. Catnip was introduced to America around the 18th century. Settlers took plant cuttings with them for food and medicinal purposes when they traveled to the New World and there is a recipe from Massachusetts 1712 that includes catnip in the list of ingredients. Native Americans also began to use catnip in their medicines and recipes when they came across it.
Catnip has long been a highly regarded ingredient in herbal medicines. This useful herb can be used to treat a wide variety of different ailments and complaints and it isn’t just cats who benefit from a bit of catmint. In humans as well as cats, ingesting catmint can produce different effects. Some people are sedated whereas others exhibit signs of increased aggression.
Catnip tea was often used as a way of making unpleasant or difficult tasks that bit easier. There is a tale of a hangman who struggled with the ethics of his chosen profession and in order to make it easier to string people up from the gallows, he self-medicated with catnip tea. Boxers from a bygone age were well aware of the benefits of catnip, too – some took to chewing on the plant prior to a boxing match, as they believed it would make them more aggressive.
The herb was commonly used as a sedative for children. It was also thought to be a cure for flatulence, scabies, sleep problems and headaches. The Native Americans even used it for relieving female menstrual problems.
Today catnip has largely been replaced for modern pharmaceuticals and is not normally used for treating headaches and scabies, but it is still great for cats, so give your feline some catmint and watch his reaction!